They fired everybody over Christmas break," recalls Photo Atlas guitarist Bill Threlkeld III, talking about when he first found out that his band's label, Stolen Transmission, had gone belly up a few years back. "We were on tour, and our manager called and said, 'Uh, bad news. It looks like the label went out of business.'"
"We thought we were totally screwed," confesses frontman Alan Andrews. "Oh, crap, is this the end of the band? No!"
In decades past, this sort of thing would indeed have spelled the end of most bands, but the Photo Atlas clearly isn't most bands. Instead of calling it quits, the outfit soldiered on and kept playing shows. The group is one of the few now active in the local scene that has experienced the total breadth of playing music both in Denver and on the road, performing a seemingly endless succession of shows everywhere from basements and warehouses to bars and theaters. By the time Stolen Transmission called it quits, the members were used to funding their own tours and had plenty of experience lining up shows on their own.
"We've played over a thousand shows," Andrews points out. "That's probably why we've only put out a few records. We've been addicted to touring. Looking back, I wonder how I survived. In 2008 alone, we did like two hundred shows."
Threlkeld and Andrews have been at it for quite a while. Long before they were making music in the Photo Atlas, the two started playing in a band called PUN, which stood for "Pure Unadulterated Noise." Although Threlkeld grew up in Littleton, his parents moved to the South Bay near San Jose when he was in his early teens, and that's when he met Andrews. "I had long hair and Alan had long hair and we were 'indie rock,' recalls Threlkeld. "I had an Offspring shirt on, he had a Nirvana shirt on — and there weren't a lot of other kids like that."
Threlkeld had recently been given a guitar and Andrews already had a drum set, so naturally, forming a band seemed in order. PUN began as a Nirvana cover band — "That's how we got our chops," says Andrews — and later took on material by the Toadies and the Pixies. From eighth through eleventh grade, Threlkeld and Andrews practiced and played shows; when Threlkeld moved back to Colorado for a spell, Mark Hawkins, a friend of both musicians, stepped in as bassist for PUN. When Threlkeld returned to California, he formed a new band with Andrews and Hawkins called Easy Way Out. Patterned after horn-less ska bands like Rancid, it was more punk than reggae. But that outfit split up when Threlkeld again returned to Colorado.
Back here, he came across an ad at the now-defunct Mars Music posted by a drummer named Devon Shirley. "The sign at the store read, 'I want to start a band. I'm a drummer. Here's the bands I like,'" Threlkeld remembers, "and then he listed those bands. 'Here's the bands I don't like,' and there were a bunch more bands. He had his number at the bottom, and I took one and then decided to take the whole flier."
Threlkeld had already been talking to both Andrews and Hawkins about moving to Denver, a place where there were actual music venues and where people would actually come to see you. Their only stipulation: they needed a drummer. But after Threlkeld responded to Shirley's ad, that was no longer an issue. "We practiced the first day we got to town, if I remember," Andrews tells Threlkeld. "We just drove to your parents' garage to play."
It was shortly after this that Andrews discovered a Denver band that proved to be both inspirational and, later, influential. "I remember walking into Twist & Shout right when I moved into town, and I asked someone working there about local music and he introduced me to Black Black Ocean," Andrews recalls. "I think the show was a couple of nights later at The Construct. That just flipped a switch in me instantly. It was the vibe of being in a small space with a bunch of people having fun. The spazziness of it, too. I remember going and getting our band together a couple of days later and saying, 'This is the kind of stuff we've got to go for.'"
And go for it they did. Soon the new band, dubbed Atlas (later revised to the Photo Atlas) after all the maps that Threlkeld's geologist father had in the garage, began playing shows. The first was at a place called the Kilt and the Candle, after another group canceled. In a similar quirk of fate, the guys happened to be at the hi-dive one night to see their friends Bear Vs Larger Bear when another act canceled. The door guy was getting the bad news right as the members of Atlas were walking in the door, and the quick-thinking Threlkeld offered up the services of his band. The people at the club that night were impressed and Atlas was asked back — much to its members' delight. For weeks, they had been asking to play a show at the hi-dive, but the fact that they didn't have any recordings had been an obstacle.
In another serendipitous event, the band was approached by Simon Elkins, a brilliant and reclusive guitarist and singer in Fissure Mystic, with an offer to record five songs for a high-school recording project. The resulting recording and the act's burgeoning live show caught the attention of Dan Rutherford of Morning After Records, who set the band up with a pivotal showcase at South By Southwest at the famed Pure Volume after-party.
By the time Threlkeld, Andrews and company made it to Texas, they were a fine-tuned machine, thanks to having played as many shows as possible, in as many places as possible, and the quartet proceeded to absolutely wow everybody at the party, including a couple of people who later linked the group up with Stolen Transmission.
The Photo Atlas's time with Stolen Transmission, the Island Def Jam imprint run by Rob Stevenson and Sarah "Ultragrrrl" Lewitinn, was short-lived. Not too long after the label issued the outfit's first full-length, No, Not Me, Never — the follow-up to the band's auspicious Morning After debut, 2006's Handshake Heart- attack EP — in 2007, the group was back to relying on its own devices. After endless rounds of touring for the next few years, the Photo Atlas got the chance to record its next record with legendary producer J Robbins in 2009. By then, the lineup had shifted a bit, with Shirley moving on and drummer Nick Miles coming in. He later left the group, but not until 2010, a year after the Photo Atlas released the To Silently Provoke the Ghost EP, as well as a split with fellow Denverites the Epilogues, The Friendship EP.
With Miles no longer in the band, the resourceful trio tapped into the local scene for his replacement. Frank Abbatecola of Monroe Monroe suggested Josh Taylor, his former drummer, who had been playing in Aloft in the Sundry. Taylor's versatile and powerful drumming proved to be a perfect fit, and he's been with the act ever since.
The Photo Atlas just put the finishing touches on its latest record, Stuck In the Honey Trap. "The title came about because I was looking up old mobster terms and the term 'honey trap' came out and it caught my eye," says Andrews. "It refers to when a girl would go in and seduce a mobster, sleep with him and rob him of all his stuff. And he would wake up in the morning, and the girl would be gone, as well as his wallet."
After working with Jeff Kanan and Nick Sullivan at John Macey's Silo Sound Studios, the Photo Atlas has emerged with a promising new album that sounds honed yet relaxed, with a sound that hasn't really deviated from the angular, dynamic, post-punk-inflected music of its earlier days. "The only way I think we've switched a little bit," Andrews observes, "is that we aren't sweating the details so much as doing what comes naturally at this point."
You can hear as much on the new album. The Photo Atlas sounds loose and more comfortable in its own skin than ever, but it's also focused and bursting with the same nervous energy that made it such a compelling band from the start.